Haiti – Country Diagnostic – Governance and Development

Por Daniela Schermerhorn (Cap. PMDF/Veterana MINUSTAH

Master of International Development Policy Candidate/ DUKE CENTER FOR INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT – DCID

1. Haiti: An Instable Context
A. History
Haiti is a fragile state with a complex history that involves exploitation, massacres, racism, slavery, persecution, occupation, natural catastrophes and extreme poverty. The conflict ridden path of Haiti starts with the battle for independence against colonialism, transitioning to a post-independence period, shaped by deep political instability and ruthless governance. The context and development of their socio and political structures along history have a severe impact on Haiti’s unstable situation. Consequently, to examine present and future indicators of governance and development, it is essential to comprehend the past.

From Colonization to Independence
Haiti was first discovered by a Spanish expeditionary campaign led by Cristopher Columbus, who landed on the island of Hispaniola in 1492, placing his first settlement known as “La Navida” on the north of the island. From this moment, in a ruthless campaign to find gold and exploit the new land, a Spanish colony was established on the island, where the native population described as “Taino Indians” were enslaved and decimated (Hankins, Lamar; 2010).

From 1600, the French established a settlement in the western part of Hispaniola, further recognized by Spain through the treaty of Ryswick. The new colonizers were now interested in agricultural production of tropical goods such as sugar, tobacco, cotton and indigo, to supply European markets. To boost their profit, they shipped millions of enslaved Africans to work on the plantations, which were submitted to all kinds of torture and terror, to maintain discipline. Quickly enough, the French colony established in Hispaniola, now named Saint-Domingue and located in the area where Haiti territory would be outlined, became the most profitable plantation colony in the “new world”, producing about 40% of all sugar consumed in Europe and 60% of its coffee (Dubois, Laurent; 2006).

At the rise of French and North America revolutions, Saint-Domingue had a population formed by 32,000 French, 24,000 freedmen of mixed blood, and nearly 500,000 African slaves from different countries, tribes, speaking different languages, professing different faiths and cultures (Dubois, Laurent; 2006). Following the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity emerging in French, a strong coalition of Africans, island-born workers, free men of color and emancipated mulatto started to organize a massive revolution in Haiti, which occurred from 1791, changing their history forever.

 Haitian independence, as a free slave nation, was proclaimed by Jean-Jacques Dessalines in 1804. However, it was conquered through a bloodshed war against all those maintaining exploitation and slavery in Haiti (Clark, Ramsey; 2010). Frightened by violence, practically all whites who survived the war, who were responsible for government institutions, fled the island following the departure of the defeated French army (Dubois, Laurent; 2006).

As a result of being the second independent State in the Americas and the first in Latin America, Haiti paid a high price. The years of war shattered the economy, destroying plantations, most of the irrigation system, machinery and installations, and without slavery there was no available free labor to restore agriculture. The state structure was devastated, and an incipient monarchy ruled by the emperor Jacques I (Jean-Jacques Dessalines), attempted to unite a divergent mixed population into a free amorphous state, by means of control supported by the army. Increasing the problem, in 1825 France demanded a large amount of money as compensation to recognize Haiti independence, leaving the country with a deep external debt, which persists nowadays. Many countries that felt threatened by the slave revolution, refrained from commercial exchanges with Haiti, in special the US, impacting severely the weakened trade market of the country, increasing the impoverishment and misery of this nation (Clark, Ramsey; 2010).

Post-Independence: Conflict and Instability
After independence, considering the diversity of its population, Haiti commenced a very unstable political period, with several groups emerging. Between 1843 and 1911, after Dessalines assassination, the country had sixteen rulers holding the highest government position, alternating between anarchy and dictatorship regimes. From these leaderships, eleven were forcibly ousted by revolutionary groups. From 1911 to 1915 the situation became worse with one president having blown up in the Presidential Palace, another poisoned to death, three forced out by insurgency movements, and in 1915, the opposition conducted a public lynching of President Guillaume Sam (Collaborative Learning Projects; 2016).

Invoking the Monroe Doctrine[1] and humanitarian values, the US initiated an occupation that would last nineteen years, pledging the intention to conduct Haiti toward a democratic governance. Although there were advancements in security and improvements in financial infrastructure and the banking system (Buss, Terry F; 2008), many grievances are connected to this occupation, since the main promise of promoting capacity building and improvement of local governance was not accomplished.

During the US occupation, there were no presidential elections. Government officials, administrators and members of the parliament were directly appointed and maintained by the US, excluding nationals from public decisions and own administration. The whole maintenance of this dominant system, was supported by a professional national army, trained and equipped by the US, to keep the established order. The external debt of Haiti was funded during the occupation by expensive US loans, increasing their foreign dependence, and the Haitian constitution was altered permitting ownership of Haitian property by foreigners, contradicting deep revolutionary values (Buss, Terry F; 2008).

However, the biggest resentment left by this period refers to the US sudden withdrawal in 1934, when the US President Franklin Roosevelt ended the occupation, removing the US administrative structure in place, without preparing the country to self-govern. At that moment Haiti was as poor as ever, with a higher national debt now to France and the US, and no leadership, gradually returning to a status of deep political instability (Buss, Terry F; 2008).

Following that, the governments assumed power through coupe d’états. Military radical rulers and general poor governance furthered inequalities and exploitation of low economic classes, as political representatives were more concerned to assure their position and power then addressing social and economic problems (Smith, Mathew J.; 2009). Democratic innovation, as direct popular elections, were introduced in 1956, compelling candidates to add a new campaign concern. Now they had to develop capacity to manage political alliances and convince the popular electorate. As a result, tribalism threats and violence emerged as a tactic of convincing popular voters, what is still in place on present days.[2]

The next 39 years, from 1957 to 1986, were marked by the Duvaliers’ dictatorship. François Duvalier, commonly known as “Papa Doc”, and his son Jean-Claude Duvalier “Baby Doc” retained power, supported by high military officials and funded by the US, as they were allies on the cold war. “Papa Doc” created a paramilitary force, the Tontons Macoutes, employing wanton violence, connected to voudou practices to maintain the order and fight any resistance (Smith, Mathew J.; 2009). His repressive style was maintained by his son “Baby Doc”, and once more equity and social improvements were not a major political concern. Power was ensured by means of violence, killings of opposition, and generalized civil unrests.

In 1990, after a new coup d’état returning power to a violent military regime, international pressures forced the government to open elections. With popular landslide victory, Jean Bertrand Aristides, a former priest and populist politician, assumed as president. Although Aristides held large popular support, his anti-elitist measures upset many people, and in less than one year after his assumption, he was ousted by a military junta and further exiled in Venezuela. His military successor sponsored state terror and right wing death squads to maintain power, killing and displacing thousands of Haitians. In resistance, the international community embargoed commercial trades with the military government, leaving Haiti in extreme economic ruin, with closure of textile factories, which at this point were responsible for a great share on Haiti’s GDP. The poor became poorer and the government turned to drug trafficking as an important source for military revenue. The embargo also helped to create a prosperous environment for black markets and organized crime. (Buss, Terry F; 2008).

Duo to the overall deterioration of Haiti as a fragile state, in 1994 the US started a new occupation period, now authorized by the United Nations, sending 20,000 troops to assure restoration of Aristides government. Aristides spent one controversial year in office in which his major accomplishment was the dissolution of the national army. In 1995, Aristides ally René Preval assumed after low turnout elections, promoting necessary measures such as privatization of government enterprises, reduction of government expenditures and downsizing the civil services. In 2000 Aristides returned to power, but now with a huge opposition claiming unfair elections. To assure governability, Aristides allowed violence and human rights violations against his opposition, contradicting his commitment with the international community. In 2004, weak and alone, Aristides resigned, giving place to a transitional government monitored by the international community.

In April 2004 the UN Security Council voted for the establishment of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti – MINUSTAH, in an attempt to protect human rights, address inequalities, strength institutions, restore growth and allow development. It ended a turbulent phase offering an optimistic prospect for the future. 2006 is remarked as the year in which elections were held democratically for all levels of government, under supervision of international community. Combat to drug traffic and criminal organizations allowed installation of a relatively secure environment and new public private partnerships gained a window of opportunity to improve national economic growth. This tough task is ongoing and the UN Mission and many International Organizations remain supporting Haiti in its reconstruction phase (United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti; 2016).

Observing Haiti throughout its historic political panorama, it is evident that keeping political power stands as the biggest objective of government officials, that used many strategies to maintain their positions including ruthless violence, human rights violations and general exploitation, which intensified inequalities along the way. Sum to this picture a true lack of political accountability, weak institutions and no concern regarding the miserable life condition of the overall population, and a fragile state unable to provide basic needs and services for its citizens is framed, helping to understand why Haiti stands as one of the poorest countries in the world living a protracted conflict since its colonization period.

B. Geography and Environment
In addition to historic socio-economic and political aspects, Haiti’s geographic location and environmental conditions provide an important perspective about factors hindering growth and development. The country is located on an island on the northern Caribe region, in a tropical climate zone placed within major tectonic faults separating the Caribbean and North American plates. There is a great risk of earthquakes and real risk of seismic hazards such as soil liquefaction and tsunamis.[3] It has two distinct rainy seasons with a moderate period from April till June, intensifying between October and November, also known as hurricane season. Natural phenomenon as the El Niño, ENSO, La Niña and the northern winter season can also impact the water imbalance in Haiti, producing substantial rainfall or periods of drought. The rainy season is commonly followed by flooding, landslides and torrential debris flow, especially in urban centers, that are often deadly and highly destructive (Government of Haiti; 2010).

According to the Global Climate Risk Index 2016, Haiti is within the most affected countries by natural events on the last 20 years (Kreft, S.; Eckstein, D.; Dorsch, L.; and Fischer, L.; 2015). The UNDP Disaster Risk Index also identifies Haiti as one of the most vulnerable countries to natural disasters, as they had experienced throughout history approximately: 01 major earthquake; 13 hurricanes; 6 major floods, 01 major period of drought and several tropical storms (UNDP; 2015).

As direct consequences of about 40 hydro-meteorological catastrophes and one major earthquake lived by Haiti between 1963 and 2013, there were landslides, floods washing out nutrients affecting the overall agricultural production, displacement and homelessness of thousands of citizens, many personal injuries, around eight million deaths, countless orphans, and a profound psychosocial trauma. Only the earthquake of 2010 caused an economic loss totaling almost US$8 billion (Government of Haiti; 2010).

Environmental degradation and climate change play a special role as a deterrent on development process, worsening the overall situation in Haiti. Deforestation is still on top of concerns, since in comparison between 1956 and 2010, the proportion of natural forests, which is very low, decreased from 5.5% to 2.6%, and this trend persists especially because electricity access still very incipient and roughly 92.7% of Haitian households depend on use of wood or charcoal for cooking. Water resources are also being depleted, both in quality and quantity, with an expressive amount of 8.6% of total renewable water resources consumed between 2003 and 2012 (United Nations Development Program; 2014). Access to sanitation represents a great environmental challenge with low improvement since 1995, and mass migration to urban centers, looking for public aid as a result of displacements and homelessness caused by natural disasters, overwhelms the underdeveloped infrastructure increasing inequalities and state fragility.

All those factors represent serious obstacles to recovery and development in many different levels, placing geographic propensity to natural disasters and environmental concerns as significant features on the deterioration of country’s resources and economic stability. Likewise, it delays and frequently backslide necessary structural advancements, increasing vulnerabilities and aggravating grievances.

2. Governance Problems
A. An Analysis of Development Indicators
Entrenched in poor governance history, impacted by critical environmental hazards, Haiti has shown persistent low performance in all indicators of development and growth, from socio-economic levels to political sphere.

Socio-Economic Indicators
Haiti is considered the poorest country in the Americas and one of the poorest in the world (The World Bank, 2016). The country’s GDP is highly dependent of foreign assistance and has been experiencing a slow growth over the past years. The services sector represents 58.2% of the GDP, followed by the agriculture sector (21.5%) and Industry (20.3%) (Central Intelligence Agency, 2016). The public debt equals 30.4% of the GDP, limiting public expenditures, and the country qualifies as having a repressed economic freedom (The Heritage Foundation, 2017).

With a population above 10.6 million citizens, highly concentrated in urban areas, the GDP Per Capita measured in 2017 was $820.00 (The World Bank, 2017). The inequality within society is high, reaching 59.2 points in 2013, as per the Gini Index, clearly indicating severe distributional problems. But the income inequality is even more evident when analyzing the poverty rates. Approximately 2.5 million Haitians were acknowledged as living in extreme poverty in 2016, meaning that about 23% of all population survive with less than $1.25 per day. More alarming is that 59% of its overall population live under the national poverty line corresponding to $2.42 per day (The World Bank, 2016).

With such large population living in poverty, it is not surprising that the country faces huge food insecurity. It is categorized in alarming situation on the global hunger index, with a negative evolution from 43.4 points in 2008 to 36.9 in 2016. The deterioration of food security is correlated to major natural catastrophes, such as the 2010 earthquake and most recently the 2016 hurricane Mathew (IFPRI, 2016). The presence of internal displaced people camps (IDPs) still high, being a home for 55,107 people (Central Intelligence Agency, 2016). Almost half of the population has no access to clean drinking water, and one-third has no access to sanitation, fostering spread of cholera and other contagious diseases. The health system is still underdeveloped, which has direct impact the well-being of people and may increase mortality rates, especially during crises. In addition, only 10% of inhabitants has access to electricity (UNICEF, 2009), which furthers environmental degradation.

According to the UNDP, the human development index identified generally low figures in life expectancy, GNI per capta and education (UNDP, 2015). Access to education has shown some improvement for children, however quality of education is still compromised. According to the USAID, a recent early grade reading assessment revealed that approximately 75% of children in first grade, and almost 50% of students finish second grade were not able to read. Also, half of adult population is illiterate (USAID, 2016 b).

Unemployment rate is high reaching 40% of total population, and for women this figure represents approximately 50%, being above national average. Gender inequality is evident, placing Haiti as 138 out of 188 countries in 2014 on the gender inequality index, as it displays lower expectancy of life for woman than men, as well as very low social and political participation of women, specially in parliament (UNDP, 2015).

As per employed Haitians, 50% rely on agriculture as primary source of income, which remains extremely vulnerable due to high risk of natural disasters, worsened by the country’s extensive deforestation. The informal business sector and medium sized enterprises (MSMEs) account for 80% of new jobs currently been generated (USAID, 2016 a and b) and the Industrial Sector is still underdeveloped and threatened by natural disasters, lack of infrastructure and poor access to electricity (Index Mundi, 2016).

Regarding business, Haiti is considered a high-risk environment for investments, with weak institutions, poor rule of law, and a political and economic unstable perspectives. Perception of corruption is very high and acknowledged in many different sources (Transparency International, 2017). Also, Haiti is considered as one of the hardest countries in the world to develop new businesses, and this result is connected to highly inefficient bureaucratic processes, extensive time required to start a business, great burden to get construction permits, difficulties in access to electricity and general infrastructure, as well as low performance in many other indicators (USAID, 2016 b).

Political Stability and Rule of Law
As a semi presidential republic, Haiti has a very varied political representation that reflect traces of its diverse population, coexisting 51 different political parties and 12 other social-religious groups with political influence in the country (Central Intelligence Agency, 2016).

Due to direct international intervention, Haiti has managed to maintain a quite stable environment in past years. However, after the end of president Michel Martelly’s mandate in February 2016, an uncertainty period commenced, affecting institutional capacity to foster economic policies, and undermining the effectiveness of public finances. In November 2016 a new president was elected, Jovenel Moise, who assume office in February 2017 surrounded by a diplomatic and commercial turmoil with its neighbor Dominican Republic, inheriting dysfunctional democratic institutions.

Poor rule of law is also a deterrent to development. The penal and criminal procedure codes are outdated, and there is a direct dependence of the judicial, legislative and executive branches, since the judges are appointed by the senate and chosen by the president. This connection promotes lack of judicial oversight, fostering spread of corruption (Central Intelligence Agency, 2016).

Haiti shows critical security conditions, with high level of urban violence, drug trafficking and heavy presence of organized crime (OSAC, 2016). As per the 2015, Haiti was classified on the Peace Index Report, within countries that has high risk of adverse effect from urbanization, with low rule of law (-1.3 points within scores from -2.5 to 2.5) and high presence of intergroup grievances (7.6 within scores from 0 to 10). Structural violence is another prevalent factor observed in social daily routine, and ruthless demonstrations of power are frequently used in political disputes, many times jeopardizing the popular participation in public life, as well as the election process. Historically it’s a common practice revoking civil liberties and political rights of opposing groups, argument that reinforce Haiti as a partly free State (Freedom House, 2016).

The World Bank worldwide governance indicator reflect all underlined core problems verified in other indicators, reaffirming the existent political instability and partial freedom status, the presence of high corruption perception, underprovided security and an inefficient judiciary system, weak regulatory system jeopardizing business development, as well as high inequality and ineptitude of the state in assure socio-economic development (The World Bank, 2015).

Altogether, these elements show serious governance problems, captured in all available public data sources. They represent a sequence of complementary events that have a feedback effect in each other, as political instability reinforces economic and social inequalities, which strengthen instability, acting as severe obstacles to development and growth.[4]

3. Conclusions
It’s hard to determine which are the main problems faced by Haiti. However, since 2004 there is a direct intervention through the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti – MINUSTAH, working to assure development of democratic institutions, maintain political stability, and provide a secure environment, with help of many non-governmental organizations. Even so, the outcomes achieved shows that there is no significant impact on Haiti’s governance, indicating that the main root cause impeding growth and development is the lack of overall state capacity.

This key issue persists since Haiti independence, and impact the ability of governments to administer its territory effectively, being capable to mobilize financial resources to achieve national interests. Also, it influences the ability to create consensus and gain social legitimacy, hindering socio-economic development, and the sovereign control of the environment by coercive means that may prioritize respect of human rights and civil liberties (Walder, Andrew G,1995).

   Considered a predatory state by many authors, Haiti has historically failed in its capacity to provide the very basic needs and services for their people. Consequently, everyone that may be interest to support real development should seek to understand the context, focusing on supporting state capacity, enabling citizens to pave the way to an inclusive society, where growth and development can exist.

Buss, Terry F. (2008). Haiti in the Balance: Why Foreign Aid Has Failed and What We Can Do About it. Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Castillo, Mariano. (April 13, 2016). Faces of a Divided Island: How centuries of racism and fear shaped the people of two nations and echo through a modern-day crisis. Retrieved from: http://www.cnn.com/2016/04/12/world/dominican-republic-haiti-immigration/

Central Intelligence Agency – US/CIA. (2016). The World Factbook: Haiti. Retrieved from: https://www.


Collaborative Learning Projects. (2016). A Brief Background to Conflict in Haiti. Retrieved from: http://cdacollaborative.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/A-Brief-Background-to-Conflict-in-Haiti.pdf

Dubois, Laurent. (2006). Slave revolution in the Caribbean, 1789-1804: a brief history with documents. Basingstoke; New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Freedom House. (2016). Freedom in the World index. Retrieved from: https://freedomhouse.org/report/


Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations – FAO. (2016). Haiti and FAO: Building sustainable food and nutrition security and increasing rural incomes. Retrieved from: http://www.fao.org/3/a-az058e.pdf

Government of Haiti; World Bank; the Inter-American Development Bank; and the United Nations System. (March 26, 2010). Analysis of Multiple Natural Hazards in Haiti (NATHAT). Retrieved from: http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/49488655AFEE6C2585257730


Hankins, Lamar (February 1, 2010). The destruction of Haiti that Columbus started. Retrieved from: http://readersupportednews.org/pm-section/104-104/893-the-destruction-of-haiti-that-columbus-started

Index Mundi. (2016). Haiti Economy Profile 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.indexmundi.com/haiti


International Food Policy Research Institute – IFPRI. (2016). Global Hunger Index (GHI). Retrieved from: http://www.ifpri.org/topic/global-hunger-index

Institute for Economics and Peace – IEP. (2015). Global Peace Index 2015. Retrieved from: http://economicsandpeace.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Global-Peace-Index-Report-2015_0.pdf

Kreft, S.; Eckstein, D.; Dorsch, L.; and Fischer,L. (November, 2015). Global Climate Risk Index 2016. Germanwatch. Retrieved from: https://germanwatch.org/fr/download/13503.pdf

OSAC – US Department of State Bureau of Diplomatic Security. (March 1, 2016). Haiti 2016 Crime and Safety Report. Retrieved from: https://www.osac.gov/pages/ContentReportDetails.aspx?cid=19


Smith, Mathew J. (2009). Red and Black in Haiti, Radicalism, Conflict, and Political Change,1934-1957, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Transparency International. (2017). Corruption Perception Index 2016: Haiti. Retrieved from: http://www


The World Bank Official Website. (September 16, 2016). Haiti Overview. Retrieved from: http://www.


The World Bank Official Website. (2017). Easy of Doing Business in Haiti. Retrieved from: http://www.doingbusiness.org/data/exploreeconomies/haiti

The World Bank Official Website. (2015). Worldwide Governance Indicators. Retrieved from: http://info.worldbank.org/governance/wgi/#home

The Heritage Foundation. (2017). Haiti Economic Freedom Score. Retrieved from: http://www.heritage.org/index/pdf/2017/countries/haiti.pdf

United Nations Development Program. (2014). 2013 MDG Report for Haiti. Retrieved from: http://www.latinamerica.undp.org/content/rblac/en/home/library/mdg/HaitiMDGReport2013.html

United Nations Development Program. (January, 2015). Haiti, facing Risks together. Achievements in Disaster Risk Management since 2010 (Jan. 2010 – Jan. 2015). Retrieved from: http://www.ht.undp.org/content/dam/haiti/docs/Prevention%20des%20


United Nations Development Program. (2015). Human Development Report. Retrieved from: http://report.hdr.undp.org/

UNICEF. (2009). The State of Worlds Children. Retrieved from: https://www.unicef.org/sowc09/report/


USAID Official Website. (January, 2016 a). Haiti Economic Growth and Agricultural Development Fact Sheet. Retrieved from: https://www.usaid.gov/sites/default/files/documents/1862/EGAD%20


USAID Official Website. (January, 2016 b). Haiti Country Profile. Retrieved from: https://www.usaid.


Walder, Andrew G. (1995). The Waning of the Communist State: Economic Origins of Political Decline in China and Hungary. Berkeley: University of California Press. Retrieved from: http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft5g50071k/


[1] More Information about the US Monroe Doctrine can be found at: https://history.state.gov/milestones/

[2] On January 2016, Haiti cancelled its election as violence erupted. For more information please refer to: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/23/haiti-cancels-presidential-election-as-violence-erupts
[3] A full seismologic profile of Haiti and clime hazards can be found on the Analysis of Multiple Natural Hazards in Haiti (NATHAT), produced by the Government of Haiti, supported by the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and the United Nations System (2010).
[4] Refer to Annex 1 on the Appendices Section: Socio Economic and Political Situation


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